Monday, June 30, 2014

A Poseur's Guide to Art: Lesson #9

Luigi, listen to me. Our most beloved Archbishop...he is on his death bed. When the good Lord finally calls him to his eternal reward and welcomes him in His everlasting embrace, we will honor his Grace, as well as our previous archbishop, may he rest in peace, with two magnificent tombs in San Vitale. And you, Luigi, will carve those tombs.


And you will devote all of your talents, all of your skills, all of your energy to producing tombs worthy of the archbishops and, most especially, worthy of the sanctified beauty of our beloved Basilica. Do you understand?


You will not reprise that crap that you sell to these backward pilgrims, many from the New World, with their coarse clothing and their packs of the fanny.


Rather, you will make such a carving… Your work will echo through the ages. Not only that, it will complement our beautiful and blessed mosaics.


Luigi! Stop staring into space and twirling your hair. Listen to me!


Our most splendid mosaics, which cover the apse and date from the 6th century, still sparkle as if they were completed yesterday. While similar early Christian works were long ago destroyed, Ravenna’s live on in glory and magnificence.

They depict the Byzantine emperor Justinian, stories from the lives of Old Testament prophets, and the Evangelists.


But to you, Luigi, I offer a commission that will make your career. One cannot think of St. Peter's without Bernini. Michelangelo gifted us the Sistine Chapel. And now and forever more our beloved Basilica will be discussed in the same breath as ... Luigi! Si?

Si, si!

Your tombs will form the base of each side of the arch that serves as the entryway into the apse. Your works will support mosaics that depict the Apostles as well as our Lord and Savior. Do you understand the importance of this, Luigi?


Are you willing to work at this until the tombs are as perfect as the mosaics themselves?


Excellent, my son. Blessings on you and the tools of your trade. And remember: I've stuck my neck out for you. Don't screw this up.

Si! Er ... no!


Maybe the other tomb is better...

Per amor di Dio! Portatemi la testa di Luigi!!

While my historical reconstruction may or may not be strictly accurate, what is definitely true is that I felt like a complete idiot photographing these monstrosities in the presence of the mosaics, especially given Heather's searing take down (here and here) of the many tourists who look but don't see. On the bright side, the figure on the right in the photo immediately above seems to have prophesied the coming of ...

So there's that. I'm not sure what the hell the other guys are doing...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ravenna in Detail (for Barbara)

Among many other things, Barbara and I share a love of Ravenna's majestic collection of mosaics. These treasures are primarily found within a half dozen buildings inside the city walls of this small northern Italian town. While traveling to Ravenna last weekend with Dave, he and I visited all of these 5th and 6th C. sites, reveling in their color, physicality and reflectivity.

As I looked I also frequently thought, "I wonder what Barbara would think of that?" or "I bet Barbara would love this." Or, "That looks like a quilt Barbara might make or a painting she might paint." Since Barbara had her hands full back in Florence with her energetic two-year old son, Jamie, I took more details of mosaic floors and walls than I probably ever have in the hopes of capturing something of that excitement I was sure Barbara would feel were she there as well.

Although mosaics really need to be seen in person to fully appreciate their qualities, here in this post I pass along some's to you Barbara. I look forward to our glass of wine in Greensboro post-Italy and a lively conversation about early medieval abstraction and its place in contemporary painting/textile making! : )

San Vitale

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

And for fun...St. Lawrence.

Arian Baptistery

St. Michael at San Appollinare in Classe (stay tuned for a post focused on this single site)

(detail of original floor)

Neonian (Orthodox) Baptistery

Original flooring from the now destroyed early 6th C. palace of Theodoric.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Photo of a photo of a painting

Today at the Uffizi Dave and I repeatedly witnessed this scene while standing in the room dedicated to the sixteenth century works of Florentine painter, Andrea del Sarto.

Not an unusual sight, unfortunately. Indeed, I wrote on the same subject two years ago from Paris after we braved utter insanity to look upon the face of a certain famous portrait by Leonardo (see Mona Mania from July 2012).

However, if you look closely at the image above you may notice a couple of odd things.

The framed object is curiously flat, bears a distinctly matte finish and has a generally life-less surface. That's because this is not the Madonna of the Harpies, Sarto's celebrated altarpiece from 1517, but a giant photo of it! The real one--as the accompanying didactic in both Italian and English makes clear--is in the fantastic Rosso&Pontormo exhibition now hanging at the Palazzo Strozzi a couple blocks away.  (See below.)

A common mistake, it appears, that's hard to explain assuming each tourist has a working pair of eyes attached to a sentient brain (which I'll admit going into our 4th week abroad, among tourists, might be stretching things).

So, without reading, looking or really even thinking, tourists from the world over are rolling through here taking photos they believe to be of the original piece and moving on. Task accomplished, meaningless photo taken. And in this case, not just any photo, but that rare breed of vacation image--a photo of a photo of a painting.

It's either incredibly depressing or hilariously funny. I am split. One thing's for sure, someone in the video surveillance room at the Uffizi is laughing their butt off in between cigarette and espresso breaks.

I will say, however, that for me it was a reminder of how increasingly bizarre our era's relationship is with "the image," and how that relationship is further complicated by digital reproductions and smart phones. At a time when art history seems to be viewed as a less and less important area of study for college students, today's episode did nothing for me but prove that more than ever people need to learn to navigate our visual world, and most importantly, to see.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Art as it was Meant to be Seen, #2

Last week I had what started out as a typical tourist-teacher outing and turned into an extraordinary experience I will remember fondly for the rest of my life. Indeed, it was not unlike my initial experience with Pontormo's Deposition, which I wrote about in my first post of this "series," in May 2014.

The morning of Tuesday, June 9 two UNCG students and I went to the Palazzo Vecchio. This has been one of my favorite sites in Florence from the beginning. It's intimately connected with the ducal and grand ducal Medici and it still bears their direct stamp, unlike the Palazzo Pitti, which was significantly renovated by its later royal tenants. Both students are art history majors, one is currently working on fountains commissioned by the Medici and the other is preparing to write about the Sala Grande, located inside this building. Given those circumstances, we started in that impressive space, which you see below.

The room was re-decorated under Cosimo I in the 1560s and represents in many ways the most complete statement of his political ambitions and claims as a grand ducal hopeful. Standing here, it's hard not to feel impressed by the sheer size of the room, its decoration and the pomposity of the whole space, feeling much as I imagine many a visiting foreign dignitary felt as they greeted the Duke, enthroned at the room's far end. Like him or not, Cosimo I was a genius of political propaganda and skillfully employed art to that end. The room IS him. And I hasten to add, "works" because all the pieces are still in situ.

After spending about 45 minutes talking in the space and walking around its perimeter, looking at the ceiling and walls, we entered a markedly different room--the tiny, jewel-like Studiolo of Cosimo's son and heir, Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici.

This human-scaled space is the opposite of the public, politically charged, ambitious Sala Grande of his father, and as many art historians have noted the two rooms reflect the particular personalities of father and son. While the Sala Grande is large and bombastic, the Studiolo is small, intimate, jewel-like and private--a visual treasure to be savored by an audience of one. And indeed, today it feels like that audience is US, because for the first time in the nearly 20 years I've been traveling to Italy we got to stand inside the space as Francesco did, rather than craning our necks from a rope line at the room's door. What a difference a few feet makes!

Essentially the Studiolo functioned as a cupboard for Francesco's private collection of small and unusual objects. Each themed painting is mounted on a hinged door that hides a shelved cabinet, which originally housed his precious collection of items deriving from the Earth, Air, Fire or Water, such as exotic items made from coral or pearls, bottles of efficacious spa waters, items made of gold, and particularly remarkable gemstones, etc., etc.

The space is another excellent (and exciting) example of the powerful experience gained by viewing works in situ since each painting is part of an interlocking visual program that also contains a frescoed ceiling and eight bronze sculpture located in niches at the room's upper corners (see the third image above). Below is Gianbologna's beautiful bronze Apollo.

Unbelievably, the room was dismantled within a century after its completion and the paintings were displayed separately. In the early 20th C. the room was reinstalled, but until this year the public was not allowed into this space without a special "secret tours" ticket.

It's hard to explain how exciting it was to stand there inside the room and allow the space to interact with us the way it was intended to, like a luxurious, jewel-toned box turned right side in. Documents suggest in condemning tones that Francesco wiled away many solitary hours in this space, but I must admit that last Tuesday as I excitedly stood there, giddily trying to take it all in, I found it very hard to blame him. It could easily take a lifetime to fully appreciate all of the 26 paintings, 8 bronze sculpture, ceiling fresco, marble paneling and hand-carved, gilded wooden frames. To say nothing of  the fascinating objects the cabinets held! Goodness! Suddenly Francesco seems less like an anti-social, morose introvert and more like a man who just wanted to quietly enjoy a whole lot of beauty...

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Views of Volterra

Volterra is a fascinating city in the countryside of Tuscany with a long history, first as powerful city-state of the ancient federation of Etruria and later as a Roman town. Today the city is still completely walled with its original medieval fortifications and from its ramparts one gets a 360 degree view of the rolling hills of Chianti. Not surprisingly, the city itself is also hilly with narrow shady streets that open into a handful of sunny piazzas that play host to the commune's former government buildings, still functioning cathedral (above) and various other churches.

Volterra is a difficult city to reach for the interested traveler and despite its many attractions is largely tourist-free as a result. We journeyed with Lawrence for about 75-90 minutes by rental car to reach it--first on the autostrada and superstrada and then on steep, narrow, dramatically winding roads that reminded me of my least favorite rides at Disneyland (Thunder Mountain, Matterhorn, Space Mountain) although with a much better view! Imagine here olive groves, wine vineyards, hills topped with iconic rows of cypress and umbrella pines in clusters, dotting the verdant hills.

Ultimately it was worth every hairpin turn! Volterra's real draw is the 1521 altarpiece of Rosso Fiorentino depicting Christ's Descent from the Cross, which was originally made for the city's cathedral (now in the civic art museum or Pinacoteca) and appears below. Others come to Volterra to see its well-preserved Roman theater (one of the most intact in Italy), while Etruscan afficionados sojourn here to visit the oldest preserved city gate built by those ancient peoples of the peninsula.

For me it was a return trip, last completed in 1995. For Dave is was a first time experience.

This is not the Etruscan gate, but one of the other handful from the medieval period. A mere 800 years old.

Tiny Roman bath building near theater.

And finally...

Although this image is a bit dark, you still get the general idea. Grief-stricken John at the far right is about life size and is clearly meant to be our "entry point" both emotionally and intellectually into the piece. Our group discussed this work and came to a consensus on a number of things:

1) The piece was almost certainly hanging higher than we saw it and in a chapel of the cathedral that forced the viewer to approach the work at an angle from the right. At the museum you could sort of recreate this and it made the work pull together spatially in a more visually resolved way which made John's large size and posture more effecting. Dave, however, had another compelling theory, which he offers in his Poseur's Guide to Art Lesson #8.

2) The piece would have been viewable only at a distance of some feet, created by an altar and perhaps steps in front of this altar. The paint was applied very, very thin in some areas and even allowing for cleanings, Rosso's charcoal underdrawings were readily visible in the lighter garments up close, but from a distance they disappeared and the fabric pulled together as abstract, flickering surfaces, catching the fantastical light eminating from not one, but two fictive sources.

3) Michelangelo's Pieta was likely the ultimate source for Rosso's Christ.

And now for the editorializing... 4) This is a beautiful painting, but not as graceful or visually satisfying as the work it's most often taught alongside and compared to by art historians the world over, namely Pontormo's larger altarpiece but of a similar subject matter and date, the Deposition of Sta. Felicità, c. 1528. [For more on this piece see my May 29 post, "Art as it was Meant to be Seen"]

But perhaps we're all just a little bit biased...quick, I don't think so!

A Poseur's Guide to Art: Lesson #8

Understandably, artists have always been reticent to deal with Mary's unfortunate case of gigantism at Christ's death.  But not Francesco Neri da Volterra!!

The man meets it head on.  Brave.

The reason you go to Volterra's Pinacoteca -- really the only reason it seems to me -- is to see this:

Rosso Fiorentino's Deposition altarpiece.  I'm not a huge Rosso fan, but this was really impressive. Although take a look at John, who has his head in his hands. If he were to stand up straight, he'd be 8 feet tall, which would make him a match for Francesco Neri da Volterra's(!!) Mary at the top of this post. In Rosso's work, as you can probably guess, Mary's knees are being clutched by Mary Magdalene. Both Marys are of normal height and would be about a foot and a half shorter than Giant John. But, more typically of Medieval, Renaissance, and later artists, Rosso was too chicken to portray Mary's gland problem honestly, So he, apparently, transferred the Virgin's affliction to poor John.

Moral of the story: Just because a work is old, in Neri's case 14th century, and just because it's hanging in a Pinacoteca, in this case in Volterra, doesn't mean it isn't really pretty jaw droppingly godawful (so to speak).  I think bad Pietàs, like Neri's, are Italy's answer to velvet Elvises.

But Rosso saved the day in terms of the art viewing.  His Deposition, a great lunch at a little trattoria, and getting to walk around Volterra were well worth the three-hour round trip drive up and down Tuscan hills.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Bologna (the much shorter), Part 2

 This gi-normous marble tomb also contains a reliquary of Dominic's head on the backside (no photo available--sorry, Mom). This piece is a collaboration between the workshop of Nicola Pisano (horizontal reliefs), Niccolò dell'Arca of terracotta fame (the top, most of the upper standing figures and the left candelabra are his) and the very young Michelangelo (right candelabra, two of the upper figures). We spent a good deal of time looking at this piece and here's where my 2014 and my 1995 recollections did not match. 

In 1995 I could not wait to see the Michelangelo pieces here. In fact, my fascination was so intense that before our visit this week, I couldn't remember anything else about St. Dominic's tomb except that there was a pair to Michelangelo's candelabra. (Michelangelo's is below)

 I've thought a lot about why that was the case and I think as a young grad student I was a bit dazzled by "il divino" and unable to see the other artists present at the party, so to speak. Since then a great deal has happened to shape and reshape my visual point of view. I've seen a lot of art from all periods and in different media and I've become less fixated on the mere name of the artist. I've also been pushed outside of my visual "comfort zone" in really good ways by artist friends (Barbara, Chris--I'm talking to you!) who have challenged me to see both modern and contemporary artists in different ways and to appreciate them. I've also developed and become more assured of my own visual taste, for better or worse. And, while that taste is always evolving, and I hope, deepening, I'm still moved by the "power" and in this case effectiveness (appropriate to place) of a piece--and I'm aware that 19 years of seeing art impacts my reactions to that power. So on Wednesday, despite the obvious demonstration of prodigious skill, I found myself unexpectedly apathetic to Michelangelo's robust, brawny, ultimately human angel on the right front of the tomb.

 No. For me, in Bologna of 2014, it was the sublimely angelic work of Niccolò that won me over. This angel seemed to belong among the realm of the fantastic where we humans don't tread. And so, rather than Raphael, I left Bologna thinking about an artist I had forgotten to remember--whose work is essentially unknown to me. And, somehow that makes the art world of Italy feel fresh, exciting and "new" all over again.